Showing Forth: SALT's Lectionary Commentary for Epiphany and Jesus' Baptism
1) We’re including two readings this week, one from Mark and one from Matthew. The first one is technically the reading for this Sunday, picking up the narrative in Mark where we left off about a month ago, at Jesus’ baptism. The second is the reading for Epiphany (traditionally celebrated on January 6th), the visit of the Magi.
2) Epiphany means "showing forth." Historically, Epiphany has included the celebration of three things, all of which are considered key moments - key “firsts,” we might say - in which Jesus’ true identity shows forth: the visit of the Magi; Jesus’ baptism; and Jesus’ first canonical miracle of turning water into wine during the Wedding at Cana.
3) Jesus’ baptism is Mark’s Christmas story, so to speak, the moment when Jesus is reborn through the waters of baptism as God’s child, God's beloved. In that sense, Mark and his community likely thought of Jesus as miraculously adopted, as opposed to miraculously conceived (as in Matthew and Luke) or miraculously present as God’s only begotten son since “the beginning” (John). This diversity of perspective underlines the wondrous mystery of the Incarnation, like a diamond considered from different angles, or four different witnesses trying to describe an inexplicable marvel, each in their own way.
4) One of Matthew’s major themes is that God’s salvation extends beyond Jesus’ immediate Jewish community to include the Gentiles as well (in other words, to everyone). The visit of the Magi foreshadows this broad message of inclusion, and together with the great commission in Matthew 28:16-20, it frames the story of Jesus’ life. Within these two bookends, Matthew's message is clear: Not only supposed insiders, but also supposed outsiders are within the great circle of divine love.
1) In the story of Jesus’ baptism, it should never cease to surprise us that Jesus is baptized at all. Mark explicitly frames it as “a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins” (Mark 1:4) - and yet Jesus, the one whom God will call “Beloved,” gets in line with the rest of us. It’s an expression of the astonishing humility and solidarity of the Incarnation: in Jesus, God comes alongside us, even to the point of joining us in a rite of repentance and renewal. Following a teacher like this would mean setting out with him on a path of humility and solidarity, confession and grace, a way of love with which God is “well pleased.”
2) Despite the well-known carol, in Matthew’s story of the Magi there are only two kings: King Herod and Jesus, the rumored “king of the Jews.” The Magi are not kings but rather “wise ones,” scholars who study the stars for signs and omens. So, they aren’t “kings” - and they aren't “three” either. The story mentions three gifts, but doesn’t specify the number of people who carry them. Those gifts themselves are telling, however: gold for a great king, frankincense for a great priest, and myrrh for one who will suffer and die (in Mark, for instance, Jesus is given wine mixed with myrrh at the crucifixion (Mark 15:23); and in John, Nicodemus and Joseph wrap Jesus’ dead body in myrrh and aloes (John 19:39)). The cross is foreshadowed in this story in at least three ways: in the myrrh; in the fact that not only King Herod but “all Jerusalem” are frightened at the Magi’s news of the child’s birth; and in Herod’s murderous plot, masked as adoration.
3) Many Christmas cards feature a bright star hovering over the holy family, but Matthew’s story suggests otherwise. Only the Magi notice the star among the thousands of others visible on a clear night, and King Herod’s dependence on the visitors to lead him to the child indicates that neither he nor his assassins could follow the star without help. Matthew’s theme here is the hiddenness of Christ, the small and often unnoticed ways God enters our lives in epiphanies large and small. This hiddenness is a kind of divine signature: instead of "showing forth" conspicuously at the Temple, God slips into the world by way of a poor family, under the heavy thumb of Roman taxation policy (see Luke's Christmas story) in a backwater town. And instead of "showing forth" to a crowd of supposed insiders, God will be noticed first by strangers, “wise ones from the East.” God does indeed show forth - but in a hidden way.
1) Whether the focus is on Mark or Matthew or both, this may be the perfect week to reflect on “epiphanies,” the ways (great and small) God shows forth in our lives, and the ways (great and small) we notice or overlook those showings.
2) What are the marks, the signatures of divine presence? Humility and solidarity, wonders sometimes subtle, sometime hidden, often unnoticed. And what are the modes attention that may help our eyes to see? First, careful, patient study and contemplation of small wonders, like the Magi studying their charts. And second, openness to following Jesus on his pathway of humility and solidarity, walking with supposed outsiders and questionable characters (like us!).
3) This might also be a great week for reflecting on how Christians should conceive and relate to people from other religious traditions, or from no religion at all. Here at the very heart of the Christmas narrative, and at the outset of a new year, are stories that emphasize how God’s love and “showing forth” extend beyond conventionally understood religious boundaries. God walks - and washes - with sinners! And God is sometimes recognized by wise ones from afar, alleged outsiders who can and do help show us the way!